Alter: Let's Get Ready to Reconcile!

Sex, drugs and rock and roll. Sounds fun, except that this column is about reconciliation, obfuscation and cap-and-trade. A pity, I know, but bear with me. If we want to "put away childish things," as President Obama urged in his Inaugural Address (quoting Saint Paul), we're going to have to talk about some awfully wonky procedural and substantive things that grown-ups in Washington like to obsess about. And we're going to have to get used to the idea that transformational change in health, education and energy policy is more important than whether Republicans cry foul over being railroaded.

Reconciliation on Capitol Hill, as you have probably heard, has nothing to do with avoiding divorce. It's the process by which the House and Senate "reconcile" their differing versions of the federal budget and deal with the devilish details. To keep things moving, passing budgets requires only 51 votes in the Senate, a simple majority. Now it may strike you that majority rule is what democracy is supposed to be about, but that just means you haven't been paying attention.

A half century ago, the Senate averaged only one filibuster every two years. Senators would speak for 20 or 30 hours straight (or even read the phone book aloud) in order not to yield the floor until the bill—often a civil-rights measure—was killed. It took a vote of two thirds of the Senate to end debate and proceed to passage, a move known as cloture.

Today's filibusters no longer feature the "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" theatrics and cloture now requires three fifths. But what was once rare has become routine. For the last several years, senators in the minority have somehow convinced themselves that democracy demands that nothing serious passes their chamber without 60 votes. Because the Democrats have only 58 (59 when Al Franken shows up) and might face some Democratic defectors, they're examining their options.

Republicans are shocked (shocked!) at the idea that a tool they used when they were in control to pass huge tax cuts for the rich in 2001 and 2003 might now be used for Obama's agenda. Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, only recently Obama's Commerce secretary designee, now says that using reconciliation is "an act of violence" and that the majority is "running over the minority, putting them in cement and throwing them in the Chicago River." In a strong bid for the hypocrisy gold, Gregg favored using reconciliation not just for President Bush's tax cuts but for Bush's plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as well. Now he favors using reconciliation for obfuscation—to convince the public that the Democrats are somehow corrupting the process.

I hate to break it to Republicans, but this isn't going to work any better than anything else they've been trying lately. Sure, the Democrats are hypocrites now, too. They blasted Bush's use of reconciliation when the GOP controlled Congress. But the supposed damage to "comity" (a fancy word for politicians getting along) is exaggerated, especially considering that not a single Republican in either chamber voted for Obama's budget. Not one. If the GOP is so mad about improper use of reconciliation that it deploys what Washington calls the "nuclear option," and shuts down the Senate with procedural gambits, only the C-Span part of its base will rally to the cause. Rahm Emanuel scoffs at the notion that the public is going to tune in to an archaic debate. "Hell,"—except he didn't say "hell"—"half the press corps doesn't understand what reconciliation is."

Obama and the Democrats would prefer not to have to use reconciliation; it rubs wounds raw and makes it harder for the president to maintain a Reaganesque pose above the fray. But they'll do what it takes. When Congress reconvenes next week, the House and Senate Democratic leadership will include in their conference report on the budget resolution instructions that reconciliation can be used as a kind of fallback mechanism if the Senate isn't on track to pass a health-care bill and an education bill with 60 votes by this fall.

Emanuel calls it "an insurance policy." The incisive blogger Ezra Klein says it's "the equivalent of having your mean, heavily-tattooed older brother stand quietly behind you when you ask the kids down the street if you can play ball with them." Whatever you call it, the stars are now aligned for the biggest change in the health-care system since the enactment of Medicare in 1965 (specifics, of course, to come). And the reconciliation threat means that education, which already has $100 billion more thanks to the stimulus, will not be messed with by Republicans.

Passing cap-and-trade is more complicated, but still doable. It will not be done through reconciliation. That's because the White House made a terrible policy blunder when its plan used the profits from the system (in which companies buy and sell carbon emissions permits) to help pay for health care and tax cuts. This is a total nonstarter in Congress because it means that high-carbon (read: coal) states like Indiana and Ohio would essentially be subsidizing low-carbon states like California. To succeed, any cap-and-trade scheme must be "regionally neutral."

Fortunately, Reps. Henry Waxman and Edward Markey have such a plan. Waxman last week called Sen. Evan Bayh, a coal-state senator who voted against the budget (one of only two Senate Democrats) and is against using reconciliation for cap-and-trade. Bayh told me he was impressed and could "live with" some version of the Waxman-Markey idea, which uses the proceeds from cap-and-trade to shield consumers in high-carbon states from big rate increases from the power companies. "Something will happen by Copenhagen"—a critical climate-change conference in December—"that's for sure," Bayh says (in part because the EPA is poised to act against carbon emissions by fiat if Congress doesn't). Emanuel is hopeful some Republicans will also come aboard. Try reconciling that with all the predictions of doom for cap-and-trade. It ain't sexy, but it's progress.